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December 28, 2011
The Bear Republic Podcast Goes Bowling
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SAN DIEGO, Caliv. -- The Bear Republic Podcast previews the Holiday Bowl match-up between California and Texas, a grudge match that, for Bears fans, is seven years in the making.
Cal softball third baseman and San Diego native Jace Williams keeps us company at McCormick & Schmicks in the lobby of the Omni Hotel in San Diego, as we break down the Dec. 28 clash between the Bears and the Longhorns.
BearTerritory and Orangebloods.com teamed up for some Q&A action this week, and you can read all the latest below, as we find out a bit more about Texas.
BearTerritory: How has the end of the season, during which Texas went 1-3, affected the Longhorns players and fan base heading into this game?
Jason Suchomel: Believe it or not, the three losses in the last four games have done little to influence people's opinions of this game. From a fan perspective, a lot of people are still so excited from an emotional win over Texas A&M on the road that it trumps the three losses. That game could be the last for a long while between two bitter rivals and sending the Aggies packing to the SEC with one final home loss was the highlight of the Longhorns' season.
The team seems to be focused and is saying all the right things. After missing a bowl game last year, the players have talked openly this week about not taking this trip for granted and they want to secure a win to (a) send the seniors off on a high note and (b) establish some momentum heading into the off-season.
Truthfully though, there has been very little discussion about this game from the Texas fan base. People are excited about the chance to watch one more football game, but there just hasn't been a lot of buzz about this one from the Texas fan base. It will be interesting to see if the Longhorn players can come out motivated and give a strong effort from the opening bell.
BT: This is the second season in which Mack Brown has failed to achieve Texas fans' lofty expectations. How much pressure is there on him to take care of business in San Diego?
JS: That really depends on who you ask. Most rational fans understand that this was a rebuilding year for Texas, with the team breaking in several new players and a lengthy list of new assistants, including both coordinators and the strength and conditioning coach.
But even the most realistic fans weren't happy with some of the results in the final month of the season, including a dismal showing in a loss to Missouri and a horrible offensive performance against Kansas State.
Texas fans have high expectations, but it's inaccurate to say that Mack Brown is on any kind of hot seat. There were rumors during the last month of the season, when Texas lost three of four games, that Brown might be forced out. Not gonna happen. In fact, Texas Athletic Director DeLoss Dodds said this week that the school is actually considering extending Brown's contract in order to crush those rumors.
People in and around Austin want to see improvement. The witnessed that in 2011 and they'll expect even better things in 2012, otherwise the natives could begin to get restless. But Mack is on solid footing.
BT: Case McCoy has started the last three games, while David Ash seems to have been relegated to a clear back-up role. Is this now McCoy's team, or could we still see the two-QB system that cropped up earlier in the season?
JS: This position has been blown wide open once again due to a poor performance by McCoy in the Longhorns' last game, against Baylor, in which McCoy threw four interceptions. The coaches have said they're basically back to the same situation that they were in halfway through the season, where they had no top QB and the official starter may be determined only by what play or personnel package is called to open the game.
Expect to see a lot of both guys on Wednesday night with the coaches giving more work to whichever guy has the hot hand. There is some talk from highly-placed sources that the coaches have decided on a starter, but even those within the program have not been given word. The guess here is that Ash gets the first look. He has more upside than does McCoy, but he also has to prove that he can be effective and put points on the board (1 TD, 8 INT the last eight games).
BT: What are the strengths and weaknesses of each signal-caller?
JS: For Ash, the strengths are that he's a big, strong kid who has a plus arm. He has the capabilities to make throws all over the field, but he hasn't quite learned to trust himself as a passer. He's a solid athlete, who isn't necessarily a dual-threat QB, but he is capable of improvising and making big plays with his legs, or even picking up yardage on designed runs.
Ash's biggest weakness is that he's just so inexperienced. As a true freshman, he's looked overwhelmed at times and the coaches have had to scale back the playbook in an attempt to get him comfortable. When he's relaxed, he's an accurate passer but that's rarely been the case. He sometimes seems to be aiming the ball, and it's caused him to miss what normally would be easy throws.
McCoy gets rid of the ball extremely fast and he's fairly accurate, but his arm strength is well below average. It limits what the coaches can call and he's shown very little ability to make plays downfield unless it's been on a busted coverage and his target was wide open. McCoy isn't quite the athlete that Ash is or his brother was, but he is good at keeping plays alive and buying himself time to find a receiver.
Both QBs have really struggled in the face of pressure.
BT: How has the injury to Foswhitt Whittaker -- Fozzie -- hurt the Texas attack?
JS:Whittaker's absence has hurt in terms of his on-field production, but it's also been a hit to the offense since he's considered the emotional and spiritual leader of the offense. When he was healthy, Whittaker was a guy who could carry the ball in a traditional role, but he had really made his mark taking the direct snap out of the Wildcat formation. Ever since his injury, Texas has been looking for someone to fill that role.
His speed and quickness were the perfect compliment to the powerful running styles of Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron and he's been sorely missed. He was also terrific as a kick returner, but Texas has been able to showcase other talents at that position.
BT: Who are the players Cal fans should watch for on offense? What are their strengths/weaknesses and how will the Longhorns go about breaking down the Bears defense?
JS: This is not a Longhorn offense that's loaded with playmakers ... it's not the type of offensive team that people are accustomed to seeing from Texas.
The Longhorns do feature two very good true freshmen running backs in Brown and Bergeron. Both players run hard and maximize each attempt, picking up yards after contact. However, both guys have been limited with injuries over the second half of the season. They should both play on Wednesday but it remains to be seen if they'll be close to 100 percent.
At receiver, fellow true freshman Jaxon Shipley is the best of the bunch. He's quick, he's a technician with his routes and he has terrific hands. Shipley's footwork in his routes is incredible and he's a tough cover one-on-one. He too has been injured in the second half of the season but he's expected to be at full strength for this game.
Tight end Blaine Irby has come on as a receiver in the second half of the season and he's a weapon that the coaches and quarterbacks have used increasingly in the passing game.
Texas would love to employ a balanced attack against the Bears' defense, but that's highly unlikely to happen with the Longhorns' struggles through the air. I expect Texas to try to pound the ball between the tackles, use some play action in the passing game and throw in a few trick plays to keep Cal honest.
BT: Who are the players Cal fans should keep an eye out for on defense? What are their strengths/weaknesses and how will Texas go about making life difficult for Zach Maynard and Isi Sofele?
JS: The Texas defense is the clear strength of this team and it has playmakers at every level. Defensive ends Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor form what could be described as one of the country's best one-two punches when both players are at their best. Defensive tackle Kheeston Randall has played the best football of his career in the last month of the regular season.
Senior linebackers Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho have been fantastic this year and Acho has played as well as any LB in the Big 12 over the second half of the season. The Texas linebackers are all athletic enough that they can make plays in space and they'll all be called upon to get after the passer on a variety of blitzes.
The secondary was believed to be a team weakness coming into the season but some young guys have really stepped up to make it a strength. Sophomore cornerback Carrington Byndom just may have been the best player on the entire team. Freshman cornerback Quandre Diggs is still learning the trade and he's given up a few plays, but he's been very good overall. Safety Kenny Vaccaro is an NFL prospect who is probably the most physical player on the defense. Senior safety Blake Gideon is a four-year starter who is a student of the game but he does struggle some in coverage and sometimes takes bad angles on tackles.
As a whole, this is a very athletic Texas defense and first-year defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has seen his unit get better as the season has worn on. Diaz loves to bring pressure on the opposing quarterback and he'll do it in a number of exotic blitzes.
BT: Are there any injuries worth noting?
JS: The Texas coaches have said their team is pretty healthy but there actually are a lot of injuries worth noting.
As mentioned previously, running backs Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron have both missed time over the last month of the season -- Brown with a turf toe and knee injury, Bergeron with a hamstring. Both will play on Wednesday and though Texas does not release detailed injury information, sources have indicated that neither player is at 100 percent.
Shipley is expected to play at close to full strength after battling a knee injury for the second half of the season.
Defensively, Texas will play without its third safety, senior Christian Scott, who had surgery on his wrist at the end of the regular season, ending his Longhorn career. Fellow safety Gideon broke his hand in the last game of the season but will play.
Texas had several other players who suffered nicks and bruises late in the season, but everyone is expected to be available for action.
BT: Prediction time. How's this thing going to go down?
JS: I've been covering this Texas team for more than a decade and one thing I've noticed is that when the Longhorn fan base is apathetic about a game, the team seems to mirror those emotions and often-times comes out flat. That doesn't bode well for Texas.
For whatever reason, there just seems to be very little excitement from the Texas faithful about this game. Perhaps it's because the bar has been raised so high in previous years, but the honest answer is that Longhorn fans don't seem to be taking this game seriously, and most are expecting Texas to win the game easily. I just don't see that happening.
The players and coaches have said the right things and taken a very businesslike approach and they've said in press conferences that they understand this is an important game. We'll know soon enough.
I can see Cal coming out and punching Texas in the mouth early, giving Texas a bit of a wake-up call. Ultimately though, I do feel the Longhorn defense will be the difference in the game. That unit has been playing well enough to keep Texas in most games, especially in the second half of the season, and I expect it to keep Cal in check in this one.
I'm used to seeing fireworks from the offenses in the Holiday Bowl, but I think the defenses win the battles in this one, with Texas playing a little better.
I'll call it Texas 24, Cal 22.